In 1922 Nobel Prize winning author Sinclair Lewis gave us the quintessential definition of the feckless and the fey when he described George Babbitt, the tower of Mid-western rectitude, in the following words. For George, “a sensational event was changing the contents of his pockets from the blue suit to the gray. And he did it with the thoroughness of a mind that reveres details but never quite understands them.” Harry Sinclair Lewis, whose smile was described as a stretched rubber band that snapped back after using, did not mean to be amusing. He meant to issue a warning.
As minority communities face the renewed civil rights challenges we outline in this issue, Lewis’ words merit some reflection today. They merit reflection as much on our ways of response as on the characters of our elected officials. In these times we cannot afford to be either feckless or fey. We need the resolve of the bold and the brave.
Over the past 10 days Quebec’s actions on Bill 104, Yolande James’ comments on courts, municipal nonfeasance on matters of concern to anglophone and allophone areas of Montreal and the anticipated response to the Bill 99 challenge has created a political atmosphere characterized by a general disregard for the tolerance of the governed. At least for the tolerance of minorities.
Individual liberties — freedoms to choose — cannot be allowed to constantly be compromised by conditionality. Freedom of conscience always seems to be taking a back seat to fidelity and expediency. The political pandering of the politics of prejudice too often trumps any sign of principled purpose.
But maybe we’re getting just what we deserve. Too many of us have for too long abdicated the prerogatives of that most important title in a democracy. That of Citizen. Too many of us have become petty, self-absorbed, running between the raindrops without the courage of conviction — whatever convictions we may have. In facing a provincial political culture that can no longer tell right from wrong — and that thrives on the “big lie” strategy — that is a very precarious state to be in.
Generations of political leaders have exploited it for electoral gain and greater Provincial power, regardless of what party they came from. They have all used the philosophy of “divide and conquer,” creating a Francophone majority riddled by self-doubt driven by jealousy of others self-belief.
The heart of the lie is that some great injustice was done to a “native” Francophone people in their “terre natale” — their native land “by the English who conquered Quebec in 1763 and kept the French under their heel. The reality is that the French came here as imperialists for the King of France and slaughtered the real native people, the aboriginals, and stole their lands. The English came and killed Frenchmen and aboriginals and gave a third of this land to a private company. Stalin once said that the broad mass of the people will believe a big lie rather than a small one if repeated often enough. That’s what’s happened here.
Arguments for Quebec sovereignty based on Francophone nativist claims have no moral foundation in the history of this country. Yet no political leader has spoken these hard truths to Quebec in a very long time. It is more convenient to pander to Quebec’s demands on language, immigration and a host of other powers to gain electoral advantage by creating a culture veneered by a sometimes not so subtle prejudice with a population propagandized to believe that it cannot compete in the North American reality and therefore must constantly be on the look-out for someone, or some group, to blame for its own perceived failings.
The only reason the politicians get away with what they do to minorities is that they have learned well the old adage that says when you see someone who doesn’t stand for something, rest assured they’ll fall for anything. Minorities in Quebec have too often been complicit in their own self-abnegation in recent years.
Our old friend Sinclair Lewis tried to deliver this message to a bleeding world in 1936. As political fascism and corporate statism ran rampant, he warned of the dangers of governments leveraging and growing their power by playing the cards of demonization and marginalization. It is a game with no rules. No limits. No restraint of consequence. A game which we, as all minorities in civil rights struggles, have watched quiescently for too long.
It’s time to push back!
Due to the tremendous reader reaction to the Bill 104 issue last week, we wanted to share as many letters as possible with you. Tommy Schnurmacher’s column will return next week.